Francine left early that morning. Before Robert could wake up and see her off, she was already gone. He did faintly remember her saying that she had to get on with her journey, but she hoped to see Robert again. Because he couldn’t get a conscience remark in, Robert was disappointed in the way in which Francine departed; however, he also knew it was for the best. She probably didn’t want to get attached to him, seeing as they were on complete opposite sides of the spectrum, and after all, her hasty departure meant that there would be no morning after awkwardness. Robert had been lying on the back seat contemplating this when he heard a knock on the window.
“Rise and shine,” yelled Clayton, whose voice was muffled by the window.
“Yah yah yah,” responded Robert.
“We got anotha day of trekking ahead of us. Gotta get on the road bright and early.”
Robert leaned over the front seat and collected the articles of clothing that he had taken off before sleeping. By the time he had got them all on and exited the vehicle, Clayton had the garage door open. Robert was hit by a wall of light. It had blinded him for a few seconds because he hadn’t been acclimated to the sunlight.
“What’s for breakfast?” asked Robert.
“Same thing as last night.”
“I just don’t like having the same meal twice in a row.”
Clayton looked at Robert quizzically. “Come on man, that’s a punk ass thing to say.”
“I don’t know. It’s sort of, like, a rule that I follow.”
“I gave you a balanced diet; you can’t say shit about that.”
“It’s just for today. It ain’t like you’ll be eating blueberries and jerky for a week straight. If all goes well we’ll be at a Homestead by the end of the day. Then you can change up your meals at the cafeteria.”
Much to his demise, Robert’s breakfast had mirrored his dinner. He ate it though. He knew that if he skipped out on breakfast he would be grumpy all day long, even if he did get intimate last night. Robert knew that Clayton wouldn’t be too fond of Robert in his grumpy state, so he just had to go through with it. So much for his rule.
After breakfast, Robert and Clayton dragged the hybrid out of the garage. Clayton went to the backyard to grab Slush and Mudd, and then the two of them hooked the horses up to the vehicle. Soon after they left the cul-de-sac that the McMansion was on, heading in the direction of I-95.
Clayton steered the horse-and-buggy down the hill that they went up yesterday. It was a sketchy maneuver, which Robert pointed out.
“There’s no off ramp for this road. It’s just an overpass,” replied Clayton.
“Couldn’t you’ve just taken another road to get to the house, then the same one to get back on the interstate?”
“I suppose so, but that would take some extra time. It’s more fun this way anyways.”
“It wouldn’t be too fun if crashed the buggy.”
“You’re talking like my mom. And besides, suburban streets are hard to figure out. They curve one way, then the other, then all a sudden you’re stuck in a cul-de-sac. I don’t want to gamble with that. Who knows, finding a road with an exit ramp onto the freeway in that neighborhood could be harder than finding a needle in a haystack.”
“You could use a really powerful magnet to find a needle in a haystack.” Robert smirked.
“One thing I’m still trying to figure out is: If navigating suburbia is so hard for you, then how did you find that house in the first place?”
“Pure luck I guess. Now I got it all mapped out up here.” Clayton tapped on his temple.
“Okay. That didn’t really answer my question.”
“If you want the truth, here it is: one time I was taking a PR guy out of the city and he told me he wanted to visit his old house. He told me to go up that hill cause it was the fastest way there, then he showed me which streets to take from the overpass road. The old house happened to be the one that we stayed at. Since then, I’ve remember how to get there. You happy?”
“Yah. Makes sense. So now you stay there cause you liked the look of the place?”
“Was it the man of the house? What did he think of the lawn? Did he ball his eyes out once he found out that his master piece had been reconquered by nature?”
“No, no and no. It was the son. He grew up there and wanted to see it again.”
“Ohh. Did he play in the big leagues?”
“He never mentioned it.”
“Then his dad probably loved the lawn more than he loved him.”
“Just kidding. Does the guy know that you stay there now?” asked Robert.
“No. When you’re a buggy driver, you usually don’t see the same PR person twice. You should know that. You probably haven’t had the same driver twice.”
“Hmmm. True. I wonder what he would think about you staying there.”
“I’m sure he wouldn’t care. He saw it first-hand. He knows it’s long gone. He just wanted to see it one last time cause we were passing near it. It’s not like he wanted to go back living there.”
“I guess he wanted some closure.”
“Yah, something like that. It would probably piss him off if he knew it was a brothel though.”
“Huh?” Robert’s cheeks turned red.
Clayton looked over at Robert and gave his signature smile.
“I didn’t see any suspect things while I was there. It isn’t a brothel, is it?”
Clayton shook his head.
“Man, I don’t get you right now,” said Robert.
“Ohh, so now you playing a fool.”
“What’re you insinuating?”
“What happened last night?”
“What do you mean what happened last night? After you went to bed I tried looking for a place to sleep in the house, couldn’t find one, so I went to sleep in the hybrid.”
“Yah, and what about Feral Fran?”
“Her name’s Francine. When you call her feral, it makes her sound like she’s some savage animal or something.”
“Alright. Where did Francine sleep?”
“I don’t know. Once we left the deck we parted ways.”
“Parted legs?” Clayton cupped his hand to his ear. “I didn’t quite hear that last part.”
“Real funny. How old are you again? Twelve or forty?”
“I’m just trying to find out if a friend of mine got a safe place to sleep.”
“I’m sure she did.”
They stopped talking for a minute or so. Clayton sensed that Robert was getting a little tense, so he decided to back off. Getting Robert roused this early in the morning wasn’t worth it. But then again, if Robert had done what Clayton thought he had done last night, then Robert should be fairly relaxed. Clayton had to get to the bottom of his suspicions; he had a crucial piece of evidence after all.
He blurted out: “Does the back seat sleep two comfortably?”
“How should I know?” responded Robert.
“I hope Francine brought anotha pair of panties for her journey,” said Clayton as he pointed to the floor behind Robert’s seat. Lying there, right in the open, was the pair of panties that Francine had worn the night before.
Robert’s cheeks were already red from before, but now they were fully flushed. He tried to mutter a response, but all he could come up was, “I, ummm, I mean she, uhhhh,”
“So you got down?”
“Hey man, no need to be embarrassed by it. I’m glad for yah. But I hope you didn’t make a mess back there. It is my buggy after all.”
Robert surveyed the back seat then said shyly, “No, I don’t think there’s a mess back there.”
“I’m just fucking with yah. I never use the back seat anyways. You seem to use it more than me.” Clayton gave Robert a wink.
“I guess so.”
“You ever do it in the backseat of a car before?”
“Nope. That was my first time. At fifty-four years old. Can you believe that? And during a time when cars aren’t even used much.” Robert let out a laugh. He was really loosening up about the whole ordeal.
“Hell man, I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks.”
“Yep. What about you, have you ever done it in a car?”
“Uh uh. Only once though. I got a story about that.”
“Well, go on,” encouraged Robert.
“Alright. So there used to be this car in my ‘hood that we used to call the Love Hotel. It was in an empty lot that had no plans for building thru the years that I lived there. No one owned this lot, and no one owned this car; as far as we knew. So anyways, we were teenagers who couldn’t get any privacy at home, so we used this abandoned car to do certain things that we couldn’t do at home. You following me?”
“Yah. Sounds kind of sleazy if you ask me.”
“Ohh it was. Lookin’ back at it, I think, man, that was some seedy shit. An abandoned car in an abandoned lot? And think about how many people used it before us and all that.” Clayton let out an exaggerated shudder. “Ewww. But we were horny kids, you can’t really blame us.”
“Yah, I know.”
“Okay, so one night I brought this girl to the Love Hotel. She was a grade above me and I hadn’t heard of anyone saying that they hit it, so I thought that maybe she was ready to go all the way. And we liked each other. I don’t know why she was into me, cause she was smart and I wasn’t, but we got along fine.”
“Maybe she liked you cause of your cousin’s fame.”
“Yah maybe, but I hope it wasn’t like that.” Clayton steered Slush and Mudd away from a hubcap lying on I-95. “So yah, I wouldn’t say that she was sexy, cause she had braces and looked kind of nerdy, but she had some certain qualities that made her cute.”
“You’re getting a bit sidetracked, don’t you think?”
“All I’m trying to say is that I liked this girl. Have I mentioned that at I hadn’t been laid yet before this?”
“No. So you were a virgin at this point?”
“Yah. I thought that this would be the right time to lose it. We were both into each other, so everything would be all good. Puppy love. No regrets with who you lost it too and all of that, right?”
Robert agreed after an unusual pause.
“Okay. So things were going good. We were making our way up the bases and all of that, but when the time came, we hit a bit of a speed bump.”
“Yah, what happened?”
“I couldn’t get a domer on. It was dark and I was trying to fumble with the wrapper. It’s tough to get one of those things on the first time, right?”
“Yah. At least you were willing to wear one.”
“Eh man, I wasn’t ready to have any kids. There was too many of those teen parent shows on TV at the time which made it seem like a shitty course to take in life. I wasn’t the smartest teen, I admit that, but at least I worked that one out.”
“Good. So what happened next?”
“I eventually got one on, but that isn’t the main point of the story. Just the first knot. So anyways, we went at it and it was good for me, but I probably couldn’t say the same for her. It was sort of expected though. I heard that most girls’ first time is uncomfortable, so I figured that that was what was going on. It through me off though. The last thing I wanted to do was hurt this girl. She told me to go on until I got off, even if she didn’t like it much. But I couldn’t get off; I was too worried about whether or not I was causing pain.”
“I could see how that would mess up your game.”
“Exactly. So because of this, and because I couldn’t get a jimmy hat on, we were spending a lot of time in the Love Hotel. Usually kids were in there for, like, 15 minutes max, but we had already doubled that. Things get too sus if you’re in there for too long, you know?”
“So I start hearing footsteps coming our way. The lot was gravel, so even if you were sneaking up on someone, you still can’t hide that shooosh noise of pebbles gettin’ moved. And that shooosh noise was getting’ louder and louder. I said to Khianna, ‘Do you hear that?’ She said no. ‘I think someone’s coming. I’ve got to check.’ So I had to stop our session to try and get a look out the window. Course, it was dark outside, and I couldn’t get a good look outside cause of my stance, but I kept on hearin’ those footsteps get closer and closer.”
“It’s kind of like one of those teen movies where they’re on make-out-point, with the windows all fogged up, and they fail to see a cop walk up to their car. Then he taps on the window - that scares the shit out of them – but he eventually just tells them to move on cause the boy is the quarter back of the football team and the officer is a high school sports enthusiast who doesn’t want his team’s star player getting in trouble with the law.” Immediately after saying that, Robert is surprised that he brought that up. That cliché plot must have been ingrained in his memory, and he felt a compulsion to let it out whenever a car and teens fooling around is mentioned.
“Uh yah, something like that.” Clayton looks a little puzzled. “The windows weren’t foggy, I can tell you that. Anyone with a brain knows that if you crack the window open just a bit then you ain’t gonna get steam all over them.”
“So you were thinking ahead? That’s a little too much foresight for a horny teenager.”
“You ever been to Birmingham in the summer? If those windows weren’t cracked open, and you had two teenagers getting’ it on, they would probably die of exhaustion.”
“At least they wouldn’t die virgins.”
“Depends what they were doing in there.”
“But let me get on with it. It wasn’t cops who came to the window. It was worse. I hadn’t heard the shoosh noise for a few seconds, but I didn’t want to take any chances and the mood had already been ruined, so I told Khianna that I couldn’t do it anymore. We were both disappointed, but anyways, we started getting’ dressed. Before we could get fully dressed I heard ‘one, two, three’ faintly coming from some younger sounding voices, then all of a sudden, all of the doors opened and we got hit by a bunch of water. I heard these little shits laughing, then they started running away but I couldn’t do nothing cause I got a bunch of water in my eyes and my pants were down around my ankles.”
“Yah, it was awful.”
“Did you ever find out why you got targeted, or was it just a bunch of kids trying to have some fun?”
“I found out about it later. It turns out that homie Duwayne was getting fed up that me and my girl were using the car for so long cause he had a girl with him and wanted to use it. So he paid these little hoodlings to ambush us with water guns. I don’t even know how he got these kids. It must’ve been past their bedtime or something.”
“Damn. That sucks.”
“Yah man. The worst part about it was that I really let down Khianna. The whole situation couldn’t have gotten any worse.”
“No one wants to be humiliated.”
“Exactly. I felt terrible about it. And to think, it all went down in an abandoned car in an abandoned parking lot. I mean, it’s both our fault for that bit, cause I brought her there and she agreed to go in with me, but it’s just that… I don’t know. I just couldn’t make it up to her after that.”
“Did you try?”
“She didn’t want to see me after that. I can see why. She was a smart girl, so she figured out that I wasn’t worth it. I was crushed and she was too. So much for a first time, hey?”
“Damn. That’s awful.”
“But I’m not tryna to bum you out or anything. The moral of the story is that that’s why I only had sex in a car once, and only once.”
“I can see why you didn’t try it again.”
“Now, what about you? We both know each other’s car stories, but we only know my virginity story. Let’s get even. What was your first time like?”
Robert responded in a serious tone, “I’m sorry Clay, I’d rather not go into it.”
“How come? Mine was embarrassing, but I still shared it with you.”
“Yours was an entertaining story though. Mine: not so much.”
“Not entertaining? If it was with your wife after your wedding night, that’s cool. I ain’t going to judge. That just means that you’ve got strong will power.”
“No, it’s not like that. I didn’t get married till I was 34. I had lost it before then. How I lost it is kind of depressing. I don’t really feel like telling it. It’ll just depress you, and me.”
“Alright. If you’re gonna be sour about it, I’ll stop pesterin’ you. I won’t tie you to the chair and start feeding you truth serum or anything like that.”
“I appreciate it.”
“But you did say that you had a wife. I haven’t heard you say much about her yet. What’s the deal with that?”
“I don’t know what to say.” Robert sounded a bit defensive, but in actuality, he was relieved that Clayton changed the topic.
“Really? Nothing at all?”
“Well, you didn’t want me to get sour. So maybe I should refrain from talking about it.”
“Ohh. Okay, I get it.”
A few awkward seconds passed where nobody said anything. It’s as though they hit a conversational stalemate. They had just passed a stream, which gave them something to look at, yet the lack of conversation was cumbersome. Robert realized that it came too abrupt, so in order to make up for it, he decided that he would talk about his experiment with marriage.
“Alright, I’ll fill you in on my marriage.”
“You don’t have to man. I was just tryna make conversation.”
“That’s a whole lot better than trying to not make conversation.”
“You got that right.”
“So like I said, I was 34 at the time. That’s an important point. Before 34 I had fooled around, had some long term girlfriends and all that, but I never thought about marriage. It was only at 34 when I realized, ‘Man, you’re getting up there. You really ought to get married before it’s too late.’ That was really tearing at me, plus my mother was telling me the same sorts of things on top of that. So in all, I felt a bit pressured by the whole thing.”
“Hey man, I’m 40 and I haven’t been married. I don’t feel pressured. In fact, I feel great about it cause I ain’t tethered down.”
“Your case is different though. Most of your adult life, or marriageable life for that matter, has been lived after Restructuring where the concept of marriage has changed quite a bit. But I don’t want to get into that right now.”
“Yah yah, I understand.”
“You’re also a buggy driver, which has got to factor into your opinion as well.”
“Right right, I get it already. Go on with your story.”
“Okay. Because of all the pressure, I got desperate. I turned to online dating.
“No way. I wouldn’t take you for the type of guy.”
“I’m not, that’s the thing. Like I said, I was desperate. But you’ve got to remember, at that time that was the most popular way to meet people. It made it too easy with the whole ‘Looking for fun/Looking for a serious relationship’ option. Those websites even had a search program that would look for ‘compatible’ people based on your interests.”
“Yah but how do you know if you’ve got chemistry? You can’t just base that on sum hobbies and interests search.”
“Hold on. I’m getting to that. So anyways, I bought into the whole glamour of internet matchmaking. I was skeptical at first, like anyone else, but after a few tries I found a woman who seemed worthy. She liked camping and swimming, cycling, reading, and she liked a lot of the same movies as me. This is what her profile said. She had a similar occupation, so I figured she was in the same ‘class’ as me; if that meant anything. All in all, from her profile I could tell that she was decent, so we went out on date.”
“And how did that go?”
“It went well. Surprisingly well. Internet dating hadn’t failed me this time around. Tara and I had hit it off and went on a number of dates. We fell in love, yada yada yada. Then after two months we decided to get married.”
“Shit son, that seems too quick.”
“Yah, it was. Mind you, we were both in the same boat. Tara was actually two years older than me. So we rushed the whole marriage thing so that we could try and start a family and all that.”
“Okay, so how did that go?”
“Good, for the first year or so. She moved into my place, which was an older condo building in Philadelphia and we shared her car. Life hadn’t changed too much for me, even if I had a woman to snap me into shape. Then things took a turn for the worse.”
“All this time we were trying to have a baby. After a year of failed attempts we went to the doctor to see if anything was wrong with us. It turned out that she was undergoing premature menopause. So she was barren. We couldn’t reproduce. At all.”
“Ohh, that’s pretty bad.”
“She took it pretty badly. I didn’t think too much of it. I wasn’t too keen on having kids in the first place. The world was over populated and the global economy was doing badly, so I was impartial to bringing another person into this world. Once I got the news, I thought, ‘Oh well, life goes on. We can still live happily without having any little kids running around.’ But, you know, Tara really wanted to have a kid. This made it really hard on her once she found out that she couldn’t have one. She felt like she blew her chance, because like me, she wasn’t ready to settle down earlier on in life.
“Aww, you might not think that after I’m done the story.”
“You’ll see. So she got really depressed about the whole ordeal. At first she kept it bottled up, but eventually she couldn’t deal with it – well at least naturally. She took to drinking and antidepressants, which if you’ve ever been around someone who mixes those substances, you would know that that’s not a good combo.”
“What was she like then?”
“When she was on her antidepressants she was pretty docile, but then she would complain about anxiety attacks or being constipated or something. I probably shouldn’t have told you that, but whatever. Because of these side effects, she would go off her medication for a few days then take to drinking instead. She was an emotional drunk too. So things got pretty bad. Her mood would constantly be shifting and she was on her way to a nervous breakdown.”
“What did you do during all of this?”
“I tried to support her. I was her husband after all. I acted as the crying shoulder. But at times it would get unbearable. She would say things like, ‘Why didn’t you find me earlier on in life’ and make other outlandish statements. Things were rough, but I put up with it. I just thought it was an episode and it would eventually pass.”
“It never did, did it?”
“Nope. Then she started taking days off of work. It started out sparse, say like two days a month, then it got to be like two days a week. Her boss would call wondering where she had been and I would have to make up excuses. When the boss wasn’t complaining about her attendance, he was saying things like: ‘Tara’s performance at work has been steadily decreasing’ or ‘She is becoming a non-exemplary employee at our company.’ Mind you, when I first met her she was a pretty big go-getter. Not in an annoying way or anything, but I could tell she was held in high regards at her work. Her work ethic was slipping though.
“So was her home life. Some days I would come home and she wouldn’t be there, I would try to call her and she wouldn’t pick up, then she would come home early in the morning, pissed out of her mind, and refuse to talk to me. It was getting to be too much. I had sensed that something was going on, so at this point I had totally given up.”
“Sounds like a hard relationship.”
“It was. It turned out that before she met me she used to be a pretty hard partier.”
“How’d you find that out?”
“I contacted one of her old friends and she told me about Tara’s past. I guess she had a history with coke and excessive alcohol use. I still kick myself for not realizing this earlier. Not to tote my own horn, but I’m usually a pretty good judge of character. She must’ve just hid it really well.”
“For a few years? She must’ve been real sneaky.”
“I think she was in denial the whole time and didn’t want it to surface. Her past probably really tore at her once she found out she was barren. The drugs and drinking was probably the source of her problems. It may or may not have contributed to her premature menopause, but I know for sure that it contributed to her unstableness.”
“That’ll do it. So what happened in the end?”
“Like I said, I had given up at this point. I would just try to avoid her, which isn’t good for any married couple that lives together, but it was the only thing to do. It went like that for a few months, then the final sword was drawn when she lost her job. I phoned her mother and told her about the situation. She empathized with me, seeing as she had to go through the same situation years before. Tara’s mother figured it would be for the best if Tara would live with her for a while. We figured that if she got away from her issues, and me, then maybe she could work things out.”
“So you brought her over there?”
“Yes, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. She was reluctant to go to her mom’s, probably cause there wasn’t any good bars around,”
“Or that she was 40. I couldn’t just move in with my folks now. That would be weird.”
“That too. The point is that she wouldn’t go on her own will. I had to wait for her to be in a post-binge comatose so that I could get her over to her mom’s place. You’ve got to remember, I lived in a condo building, so there was a bunch of people around, possibly watching me take the elevator with a barely conscious lady then dragging her over to her car.” Despite the serious tone of the majority of the story, Robert said this last bit fairly light-heartedly.
“That’s like witnessing an abduction going down. Did anyone say or do anything?”
“No, at least I don’t remember. You know how people were though; if it wasn’t any of their business, they wouldn’t be a part of it. Everyone just stood around tapped into their ARTifact’s while I brought Tara through the foyer and into the car. I just hope no one was taking pictures or video.”
“Well, did any of your neighbors act differently after that?”
“Who knows? Me and Tara weren’t the most liked neighbors since her mood swings would cause her to raise her voice often, so they didn’t want a part of me before the incident, or after the incident.”
“So you don’t know if anyone got any pics or vids?”
“No. I guess I didn’t really care. I was determined to get Tara to her mother’s place so I wouldn’t have to deal with her antics.”
“But you said that you did care.”
“No. I said that ‘I hope no one took any pics or vids.’”
“Which is caring.”
Robert put his right palm on his forehead. “We’re going in circles here. Are you going to let me finish or what?”
“Alright. I’m sorry. Go on.”
“So I drove Tara to her mother’s place, which was far out in Philly’s suburbs. I think it was in Delaware, or at least pretty close to the border. Anyways, her mom had a bed and room all ready for her. But the room was empty. I forgot all her stuff. So I drove back to the condo, grabbed all her stuff, brought it to the car – which took multiple elevator rides by the way – then drove it all back to her mother’s place. As a final gesture, I left the car there and took the bus and train home.”
“Couldn’t she just drive back to your place then?”
“Yah, but the purpose of leaving the car there was to get a point across.”
“’I don’t want anything to do with you anymore. Here is all your stuff. There is no point in you coming back to the condo. Kapish.’”
“Did she get the point?”
“I’m pretty sure. I haven’t seen her since then, so I think I got my point across.”
“Wow. You haven’t seen her since. That’s rugged.”
“You’d think, but our relationship was so strained at that point that not seeing each other was probably the best thing for us. It sounds harsh, but it’s the truth.”
“Wait, wouldn’t you guys have to see each other for a divorce?”
“Yah, but we never got a divorce. For all know, she might still be going by ‘Mrs. Christiansen.’”
“But what if you wanted to get married again? Wouldn’t having a non-divorced marriage make it impossible for you to get married again?”
“That hasn’t been a problem. I haven’t thought about marriage since then. We had some good times together, me and Tara, but for the most part, the whole experience turned me off from marriage.”
“Most likely. It was an emotional rollercoaster. I don’t want to take my chances and marry another woman. What if things take the same route? It wouldn’t be fair to put another woman through that, or myself for that matter.”
“If you put it that way, you’re right.” Clayton thought about what he was going to say next. Nothing came to him. He didn’t think that anything was appropriate, so he ended up saying, “That’s a tragic story. I guess maybe I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“Nah, that’s okay. It sort of feels good talking about it. Getting it off my chest, you know. It makes it easier for you to understand where I’m coming from.”
There wasn’t much more to say, so neither Robert nor Clayton spoke. They rode down I-95 in silence, but it wasn’t an awkward silence; it was more of a contemplative silence that both of them accepted.